Author, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau knew the value of imagination to change the way we perceive the world around us. Research is discovering that as we get older, we may lose our short-term memories, but we rarely lose our imaginations. Incorporating art, theatre, dance and song into our lives as we age paves the way for creative expression that can help heal the body and the mind, and spark memories of younger times.
“Art is one of the most interesting things in life because it can ask simple questions and give incredibly complicated answers,” said Jeff Chan, creative facilitator at United Active Living. “It’s through that process of creativity – the thinking, the making, and the presenting that truly enable one not only to express themselves to others, but to find themselves at any stage in life. Age is irrelevant in the creative process. In the end we all are unique by the experiences we have or haven’t had, and we all offer varying perspectives on life.”
Expressing creativity is a central theme at United Active Living in Calgary. We are taking the latest research and creating programs that promote the expression of creativity in the residents. The results have brought residents in the community closer together, and for many, art has opened up a new world.
“They want you to try [creating art] yourself, and there are people that have done some incredible things just off the top of their heads without asking for help, and they’ve turned out wonderfully,” said resident Betty Earle. “If anyone comes and looks through our art room, they’ll see the variety that is produced there. We have an art show every year and we invite our relatives and friends to come to it.”
Getting older makes you a better artist, said Jeff, because music and art don’t necessarily depend on verbal skills. Emotion expressed in art or music is a universal language.
Jeff points out that artwork made by the individual as well as collaborative artworks all become an integral and defining part of the community. Whether the artwork is visual, written or performative, everyone has the capacity to create. “It’s my belief that many people have forgotten how to play in life, and that play is essential to discovery. Working in the arts, I’ve learned that play is an important part of the creative process. Play is in everyone and it just takes a little positive reinforcement and a safe environment to bring it out. By creating communities that encourage play, a community has the essential ingredient to discover greater horizons.”
At United, this approach becomes a way of thinking, of living, of communicating.
But I don’t have a creative bone in my body!
As it turns out, almost everyone does. It’s just a question of figuring out what form of art works best for you. Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, “Every artist was first an amateur.”
Dr. Gene Cohen, who pioneered research into creativity and aging at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., found that the arts have a positive effect on health and illness as we age.
Cohen suggested that any activity that uses both sides of the brain is like “moving to all-wheel drive. It’s like chocolate to the brain. It’s like you have a new capacity or skill. One of the things that people don’t realize is that with dementia people still have their imagination. Especially if they’re beyond mid-stage or early dementia there’s still a lot of capacity; in mid-stage, where there’s a lot of impairment, the imagination is stronger than the memory.”
In a research paper on creativity and aging, Cohen noted that when the brain is challenged, new synapses, or contact points between cells are created. “Art activities are especially good because they are more likely to be sustained, and just like the impact of physical exercise over the long term, the benefits of challenges for the brain increase when they are ongoing. Indeed, in the research on leisure activities that most contributed to the delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease for those at risk of the disorder, dance was at the top of the list.”
The Many Forms of Art
The art at United Active Living takes many forms – painting, pottery, writing, dance, music, theatre. Musician, Peter Exner who develops and delivers music care programs says that music is transformative. “By combining familiar tunes with new repertoire, music helps us to relive and share past experiences and helps foster creativity for future artistic endeavours – something that is at the core of everything that’s happening here.”
Directly connected to the power of music is dance, whether it is simply moving our bodies to the beat or undertaking complex choreographed movements. “I have taught a 30 min sitting, standing and moving dance class to music at Garrison Green for the past two years,” said Lisa Gilmour, with Marda Loop Wellness in Calgary. “I know that everyone always leaves feeling a little more alive and invigorated no matter what their level of capacity. I believe this little bit goes a long way.”
According to one study, aging adults who danced regularly had a 76 percent reduced risk of developing dementia. Experts theorize that dancing is beneficial for our brains because it combines cardiovascular exercise with split-second decision-making that taxes our neural network, forcing it to create new pathways.
Kate Cunningham, movement interaction group instructor at United agrees. “Because dance relies on movement and other non-verbal action as the primary means of communicating and connecting, interacting in this manner allows people to participate in a group based on their ability, rather than their disability.”
Resident Hertha Reich, who has found the art-focused programs invigorating, summed up life at United very nicely when she said, “Coming to a place like this, where there’s so many options, so many things you can do. Well, it’s just awesome!”
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